“The goals of the preservation movement have evolved. The methods, for the most part, have not.”
Rast, Raymond W.1
The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation recently asked for comments on the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. These standards have not been redone in over 30 years, and I have been involved in the effort to improve the National Register of Historic Places – and by extension – the Secretary’s Standards – for about fifteen years, including a 2013 panel at the National Trust conference in Indianapolis that included Ray Rast, quoted above.
Rast provided one of the first “Eureka” moments in our efforts to modernize the National Register when he suggested a sliding scale for Integrity. Charged with finding historic sites associated with Cesar Chavez, he was frustrated that State Historic Preservation Offices kept saying that the buildings had no integrity, like the example above where Chavez first organized workers. It has lost historic integrity but can it still tell the story? It happened in this building, in this place, even if windows and walls have been altered.
I have written blogs and a book chapter about this subject many times, including here in 2016. At that time Donna Graves and Shayne Watson provided the next “Eureka” moment by proposing that Integrity – in the context of LGBTQ history in San Francisco – focus on only four of the seven aspects of integrity. In the last year, an eighth aspect of Integrity – Use – has appeared. Eureka!
Alazan-Apache Courts (Los Courts) San Antonio. Many alterations since 1940 but USE is unchanged and they made the 2021 National Trust list of 11 Most Endangered Properties.
All of these efforts derived more from the INPUT side of the National Register – how do we get landmarks of most people listed when the standards are designed for fancy folk and their fancy architecture? But the focus of the Advisory Council right now is on the OUTPUT side – how do we judge and approve treatments for historic properties? Is it all about wood windows? (HINT: No. Here’s my take)
Tell me what the angels are made of.
More importantly, the effort is driven not simply by the ancient nature of the existing standards, but by the great variety of interpretations of those standards by State and Tribal Preservation Offices, the National Park Service, and local landmark commissions. Part of this variety is generational. For some Boomers it IS all about wood windows. When I first proposed revisions to Integrity, the old guard (literally – they are called the “Keeper of the National Register”) were furious.
It’s not always about architecture. Malt House, San Antonio (demolished)
The National Register falls under the Department of the Interior, and new guidances are slowly opening the doors to new types of landmarks and new types of treatments. Take one example that we are very comfortable with in San Antonio – Trex replacement floorboards for porches. We have approved these for landmark grant projects. The Office of Historic Preservation also has, although they will approve them UNLESS they have a faux-grain finish that makes them look like wood. That is a bit too precious for me. (HINT: Skeumorphs)
But I know where it comes from, and this is probably the biggest issue in the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards – internal conflicts. Back in 2006 the National Trust commissioned me to assess a particular situation where interpretations of Standards #3 and #9 came into conflict.
Standard #3 says “Changes that create a false sense of historical development, such as adding conjectural features or elements from other historic properties, will not be undertaken.” while Standard #9 says “new work will be differentiated from the old and will be compatible with the historic materials, features, size, scale and proportion, and massing” So new work should look new but also it should fit in. If it fits in too well, Standard #9 defeats Standard #3. Or it whacks it on the head, as in the case above. And the historical fact is that right about the time the Standards were rewritten in 1990, people started creating all sorts of new buildings indistinguishable from the old.
1903 and 1993. Joliet, Illinois
But the real problem is not one of architectural style. The real problem is that architecture and real estate development have their own rules and interactions that don’t really apply when you are dealing with sites that are important because of their history and associations. How do they convey those histories and associations? By architecture, yes, but more by place. And by intentionally conveying that information.
Underground railroad site at a McDonald’s, Maywood, Illinois
Here is where OUTPUT returns to INPUT, because while many organizations like my own are working to nominate more diverse historic sites to the National Register, one of the biggest drivers of nominations (INPUT) are developers who are trying to get tax credits (OUTPUT) and of course their goal is to keep it as simple as possible. If you just focus on architecture, historic preservation is as easy as zoning! No inherent or unique qualities to worry about! It’s just a commodity like all others!
In my writings on this subject, I suggested new standards for sites that met Criterion A or B, namely sites that had historic rather than architectural significance. Rather than meet high architectural standards, the treatment for these sites should focus on an interpretive plan. In some ways, my extensive experience with World Heritage sites with their management plans informed this suggestion. If World Heritage sites have management plans, couldn’t National Register sites that are important for who they are associated with or what happened there have interpretive plans? Heck, you could even make the tax credits dependent on effective interpretive plans.
The other aspect of World Heritage that is useful is the Burra Charter, which is my north star for the whole heritage conservation field. The Burra Charter basically requires community input from the moment of inception to the final treatment – a contrast to the old world where the landmarks get picked by the professionals alone. The basic idea is again, the opposite of zoning. Every site has a unique history and form that cannot be commodified. Its treatments – how we fix it up – have no analogues. They are determined by the site itself, its history and cultural continuity, and by the community that wants it in their future. No two sites are treated the same because no two are identical.
I can’t remember if it is in the fridge or the basement…
Heritage conservation is PROCESS, not FORM. The process is IDENTIFY – EVALUATE – REGISTER – TREAT. That four-step process is defined in the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, and Section 106 basically follows the same four steps for reviewing federal undertakings. The Burra Charter essentially defines the same PROCESS but insists that the community be involved at every step. Those who wrote the NHPA is ’66 or the Standards in the 70s and 80s likely envisioned professionals doing that work. Professionals are needed of course, but they cannot do it without community, since community are the ultimate stewards of whatever structure, site, landscape or traditional practice is being conserved.
Matachines at Mission Concepcion, 2017.
Naturally, developers and public officials dealing with historic buildings want a simple form-based checklist of what they need to do, not a process. The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards are broad principles, and while the National Park Service publishes detailed Guidelines for the use of the Standards. The “checklist” so to speak is not really prescriptive – it is categorized in terms of “Recommended” and “Not Recommended”. The process should yield a different formal result for each site.
At the end of the day, the issue is more the INTERPRETATION of the Standards than the Standards themselves. During my forty years in this field, I have always been aware of how certain State Historic Preservation Offices or certain local landmark commissions had their own tendencies in review of historic projects. Developers using the tax credits want consistency and predictability, but is that reasonable? Are ground soils consistent and predictable? Are building contractors? Are zoning variations? Are interest rates? Climate? Market conditions?
- “A Matter of Alignment: Methods to Match the Goals of the Preservation Movement,” forum journal, Spring 2014, p. 13. See also Michael, Vincent L, “Addressing the Diversity Deficit: Reform the National Register of Historic Places” in Creating Historic Preservation in the 21st Century, Wagner and Tiller, Eds. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2018
I would always tell my students that you don’t save buildings once. You have to do it again and again. Back in the 1980s and 90s when I worked for Landmarks Illinois (it had a longer name then) we helped save the Hotel St. Benedict Flats (James Egan, 1882) four times in six years – with a National Register nomination, appeals to zoning changes, and finally a landmark designation followed by a phone call from a developer who ended up buying and restoring it using the historic tax credits and an easement donation.
Last year here at the Conservation Society of San Antonio, we lobbied San Antonio College and the Archdiocese – then the owner – to offer the building for sale. We collaborated with the Tobin Hill neighborhood group and even with this blog, which led to two persons purchasing the building for rehabilitation as a wine bar. You can see my blogs on it here and here. Now, a year later, it needs to be saved again as the owners have put it up for sale following a little rehab and some damage from intruders.
I actually discovered that people had broken in back in February when I was taking Advisory Council on Historic Preservation Chair Sarah Bronin on whirlwind tour of San Antonio preservation. I immediately alerted one of the owners, but some damage had been done and now there is a protective fence and several boarded up windows.
Damage does not always mean the end of an historic landmark, and at least the Hughes House was officially landmarked by the City Council in the interim. It also got a zoning change for the wine bar, no mean feat given its location near schools and houses of worship. Still, the process starts again, the building is a bit banged up and the future is uncertain….
In other news, a landmark I drive past every day had a fire recently, again courtesy of the obdachlos, who also tried to block firefighters from responding. Fortunately the firefighters succeeded and only a portion of the rear of the house was damaged. We were interviewed by a tv station about the house, since it is a Texas Historical Landmark and associated with Venustiano Carranza, one of the big four of the Mexican Revolution along with Francisco Madero, Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. Carranza was President for most of 1915-20 (and actually got rid of Zapata). The house was built by his niece 1913-14. Both Madero and Carranza spent significant time in San Antonio early in the decade, although the houses they visited before 1913 are all demolished now. There is a statue of Madero on the River Walk near King William. So the Carranza house is our only physical connection to this history.
Fortunately the house has been secured, but thanks to the KSAT reporters, we learned that there is another building associated with this important chapter in San Antonio history, and it is right across the street. And it is being rehabbed. Now we have two buildings, whose history is intertwined!
Turns out this simple industrial structure was the publication site of La Prensa, an important Spanish language newspaper in San Antonio for a century. La Prensa was front and center during the Mexican Revolution, and having it right across the street doubles down on the value of this landmark. Here are two buildings that hosted important visitors central to a defining moment in Mexican history. They had discussions and strategized here, and the press put their words into action.
If these walls could talk……. The good news is the building is secured, so perhaps it will not suffer the fate of so many others – perhaps a dozen a year – lost to demolition by neglect.
The issue raises the larger question of why the city can’t do more to prevent the loss of vacant buildings, especially since San Antonio passed a Vacant Building Ordinance nearly a decade ago. According to KSAT News, over 250 vacant historic buildings exist in the city, and we have certainly seen many of them succumb to fire after squatters take up residence. We had the sad story of 503 Urban Loop last year, the Lone Star Brewery before that. Heck, 800 W. Russell in my neighborhood (pictured above) burned twice. Like many of the others, the owners were neither local nor attentive.
Above: Site of 212 W. Dewey owned by an Austin developer who bought like 8 houses in the Tobin Hill area which are all subject to demolition by neglect. This neglect is not a lack of capital or supply chains or anything – it is a business model, one that harms neighborhoods.
So why doesn’t the Vacant Building ordinance solve the problem? Representatives of historic neighborhoods have been asking the city that very question in recent days. If neighborhoods alert the Office of Historic Preservation about a vacant building and get it on the Vacant Building list, shouldn’t Development Services be enforcing code violations? Or, is it because it is on the list that everyone thinks someone else is taking care of it? Stay tuned!
Fiesta is over, the IPW international travel network just completed a lovely visit to the Alamo City, and the State Legislature has almost completed its biennial shenanigans, one bit of which just hit the press and could have a negative impact on one of our treasured landmarks, the Institute of Texan Cultures, built in 1968 and a unique celebration of Texan diversity in a unique Brutalist building.
I wrote about this not long ago – the Conservation Society has been working to list the building on the National Register of Historic Places. Meanwhile, its owner, University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) completed a series of working groups looking at the future of the institute and insists it is looking at three possible options – keeping it where it is, keeping it in the Hemisfair area, and moving it elsewhere. The building – the focus of the Conservation Society – has long been rumored to be a potential site for a new highrise (as illustrated in an issue of Urban Land a few years back) or sports stadium.
Two things happened this week that bode ill for the building. First, the popular Asian Festival was moved from the site to the main downtown UTSA campus. This is a classic predemolition move akin to dozens I have witnessed since the 80s. Remove a beloved event/store/use from a building. Ideally replace it with something crappy that people want to get rid of, and then …poof – no one objects to demolition!
This was the classic example from 40 years ago. A beloved downtown grocery in Chicago where you could get apple-sized strawberries (this was before those became normal – GO GMO!) dipped in chocolate was closed first. Then the retail space became a shop selling two pairs of vinyl men’s pants for $9.99. Within a year or two everyone forgot about Stop N Shop and the exquisite 1930 Hillman’s building was demolished.
Eventually they did building something there. It was only vacant like this for 19 years. See my 2012 post here.
The second thing that happened is that the State Legislature passed a bill that basically gives a couple hundred million in tax revenues to the convention center and downtown sports stadiums. Given that the site of the Institute of Texan Cultures has long been rumored for a baseball (or basketball?) stadium, having a handy government funding source sure could help if it comes to undoing a big Brutalist landmark.
I understand the populist dislike for Brutalism, and even more I understand the Mischief of Modernism that made these amazing buildings in 1968, a Hubris of Scale that engenders an equally skewed approach to redevelopment in our own time.
Meanwhile, at the Alamo temporary constructions are EVERYWHERE. This is the South Gate, which is not a reconstruction but a modern interpretation of a feature that existed from the Mission era (1724) all the way until 1871. It is built atop the actual archaeological remains of the south gate, no easy feat. Just beyond it is the temporary Lunette, a palisaded fortification that exists for maybe 18 months in 1835-36, but since that includes the famous battle of the Alamo, there it is.
And cannon. The Alamo has gained an average of one cannon per year over the last seven years. You have been warned.
These are in addition to the also “temporary” Southwest rampart, with its massive 18-pounder cannon which went in a year ago. Oh, and they just got permission to build a “shade structure” just south of the Lunette in Plaza de Valero. The Conservation Society objected that this will obscure views of the Alamo.
I have a natural concern about “temporary” structures, with specific examples from the last 40 years. Sticking with Chicago, back in 1977 they wanted to build a bandshell in Grant Park, but thanks to a 1912 ruling, no buildings can be added to Grant Park (except the ones already there) which is why the Museum Campus is just south of the park. Now, if this had been the 21st century, they would have done what they did with Millennium Park – just build the buildings and then put the park on top of them! Problem solved!
Alas, this was the 1970s when people were wearing vinyl pants so they decided to build a “demountable structure” for the new bandshell. It was basically a fold-up tent they could erect and disassemble each year, thus not “building” in Grant Park. I remember seeing it the first year it went up. I have seen it since, because it has been demounted exactly 0 times in my lifetime. So, I tend to be suspicious.
More staying power than a traditional mortgage.
The shrine of Texas liberty. Never mind the bollards.
The other night at the Beethoven Männerchor Halle und Garten the choir came out to read a poem in German and English and sing briefly to a tree. The large pecan tree will be cut down on Friday because it is cracked and a hazard. Meanwhile, a major project for Brackenridge Park was heard by the Historic and Design Review Commission following a couple of years of protests to “Stop the Chop” of older trees in the park. While the number of trees to be cut down has been halved since the protest began, the protestors remain at full strength and more than two dozen crammed the hearing room.
Why do trees have this power over people? They lie at the center of most religious traditions, not just the Germanic ones. There are sacred trees throughout Asia and Africa. Trees are oracles, places to expiate illness or sin, gods and goddesses and even human souls. You would find a similar spoken homage to the tree about to be cut along the Irrawaddy River as we saw last night along the San Antonio River. And one protestor at the hearing interrupted with “they are sacred,” voicing a human perception that dates back tens of thousands of years.
Not technically a tree but a centuries-old camelia flower, Weiboashan, Yunnan, China.
No wonder it has always been easier to landmark trees than buildings, such as I often experienced in China, where trees were tagged red and green for how old they were and more zealously preserved than any building. Same in the U.S. where real estate developers are only happy to tell you they will save trees on the site but the buildings have to go.
I am also reminded of the pisog trees of Ireland, where ribbons, articles of clothing, glasses or other objects are tied to a tree as a prayer for healing. This is also found in many other cultures, for examples Arab folklore and Greek mythology.
So is it the religious associations, the idea of a world tree, or the idea of human transference into and out of trees that causes this level of worship and attachment? Perhaps it is simply the basic environmental impulse, the mythology of the Avatar movies. Trees symbolize our entire environment, tended by avatars of our better selves, wrapped in a harmony myth.
Naiju tree gods, Ise, Japan, 2004.
Trees were symbolic to ancient Egyptians and African farmers. They are pretty darn near universal, on par with kittens and puppies. Like kittens and puppies, they symbolize “nature” but are generally farmed and thus a part of human culture. In parks especially the vast majority of trees were planted. The goal of great landscape designers was to make these places feel that they were natural even though they were designed. Parks are designed just like a Shinto temple or the Parthenon, but we tend to categorize them as “nature” because they are alive. And of course, trees breed new trees which are unplanned – like the ones now subject to removal in Brackenridge Park. Volunteers, they are called.
Framed. Farmed. Symbolic.
Frederick Law Olmsted designed the landscape above in great detail. He curated our experience and manipulated our views. Brackenridge Park was similarly designed, and the pecan tree at the Beethoven was curated and planted in the early 20th century. Yet unlike other human designs, these living things embody a mythology and passion that buildings do not.
Mural at Weibaoshan, Yunnan “Dancing under the Pine Trees”
There are of course natural areas, some great forests where the trees aren’t farmed. Occasionally burned, yes. And yes, the indigenous like the Ohlone would burn other species to focus on the oak.
Note how the forest burned here in modern times is described: “fuels had been building up for 117 years”. That is because normally (whatever that means) fires occurred every 8-10 years. Tree lovers tap into a long human tradition of tree worship, but there is an equally long human tradition of tree farming. The advocacy arguments are made in moral terms, but the moral realities are ambiguous. We have a preference for human-designed species, like dogs and cats, and we have made similar selections of our arboreal friends.
No one designs trees like the Japanese.
What I used to call “weed trees” up North are called “trash trees” here, but in either appellation the hate is great and the implication is that we humans did not design these trees into our environment. They were, as we say, “volunteers.” The lack architectural or historical value. We tend to curate our trees as we curate our cats and dogs.
I guess the Chinese crested is considered uglier than the Mexican hairless. This one is Peruvian.
Kittens, puppies, trees. In Brackenridge Park they have signs warning against the dumping of animals. They also have had a massive feral cat problem slowly being solved by humane spaying. Feral. That’s what you call your designed creatures when they escape the farm.
Christmas Tree farm, Los Gatos, California, ten years ago.
But why the zero-tolerance policy? That’s what I don’t get. Not a single speaker who protested last night admitted to the need to remove even one tree. Maybe that would violate the moral imperative. All or nothing. Asceticism. Not my vibe – heck I compromise on historic buildings all the time.
They were concerned about moving a large old live oak. I was not concerned about moving this 1880 limestone house across the street and rotating it 90 degrees. I’m crap at asceticism.
I sang the revised lyrics of Der Lindebaum to our Beethoven tree the other night and I will happily sing it to those park trees that are being removed because they are breaking down walls and threatening historic buildings. I can’t make more historic buildings.
Oldest industrial building in San Antonio. Note the volunteer trees, which are younger than me.
My students always chided me for handing out thick reams of readings and assignments, telling me I was “killing trees”. The implication was that I should do things digitally and save trees. My response? “I can plant more trees. I can’t plant the coal, uranium and lithium powering your digital device.” *
We planted all of these trees. You wait 20 years and there they are. I remember when the river birch on the right was in the back seat of the car.
Man kann den Wald vor lauter Bäumen nicht sehen
- – I guess the proponents would imbue each tree with its own identity and personality, be it volunteer, trash, designed, or sculpted. They might say we can always build more houses, and just to add a layer of overlapping irony, I would respond that the new houses won’t be made of old growth wood, which is straighter, denser, and more disease-resistant than any modern farmed wood. So, there is that.
This week marks forty years since I began my career in heritage conservation, a journey over much time and vast space. I am incredibly blessed. Last week I got to take Sarah Bronin, the Chair of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation on a quick tour of preservation challenges and successes in San Antonio at her specific request. I recently visited by Zoom with my 7 roommates from the 2018 Harvard Business School Non Profit Management class and next week I will be in Washington DC lobbying for the Historic Preservation Fund, among other things.
Forty years is a long time, and a fun thought experiment is to take another 40 year chunk – for example the century before, 1883-1923 and see what changed. That period witnessed electrification, automobiles, movies, radio, analgesics, relativity, psychoanalysis and modern architecture. Mine witnessed personal computers, the internet, digital photography, smartphones, microbreweries, quantum entanglement, global warming and email. Both had global pandemics and both ended up with eight planets in the solar system.
The last forty years in heritage conservation/historic preservation have seen the rise of heritage areas in the 1980s, the expansion of historic tax credits in the 1990s, new approaches to intangible heritage and cultural history in the 2000s, to the current focus on affordable housing, climate change, diversity and historic trades. Some things persist, like the importance of public-private partnerships, public relations, and networking, and some things evolve, like architectural history and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards (we hope).
I am usually struck more by similarity than difference, but there has been some serious evolution in the field, even though you can find preservation initiatives dealing with trades, diversity, affordability and climate all the way back in the 1970s. To me the most significant shift has been the ongoing arc away from museum curation to community activism, and the attendant emphasis on the economic everyday.
In my dissertation, I traced the evolution of preservation from a museum-focused antiquarian enterprise in the early 20th century to a part of the neighborhood activist’s toolbox in the 1960s and 1970s. Historic districts, which were still a new thing in the 1960s (in the 1960s the Municipal Arts Society imagined there would be no more than three or four historic districts EVER in New York City). The next step came with the invention of Main Street in 1975 by Mary Means, where traditional architectural preservation was only 1/4 of the cocktail, combined with promotion, organization and economic restructuring. I arrived in the field in 1983 as the first heritage area was introduced in Congress, where again traditional preservation was only a 1/4 of the cocktail, combined now with natural area conservation, recreation and economic development.
I was asked in 1990 by Metropolitan Review to write an article about the coming decade of preservation and my answer was couched in terms of expanding audiences and expanding targets for preservation – more modern buildings, more diverse constituencies, and a greater focus on the community issues that had driven districts, Main Streets and heritage areas.
Architectural history had always lagged the community activists who had saved the Jefferson Market Courthouse in 1961 when all the experts hated High Victorian Queen Anne design. By the 1980s and 1990s the pesky public were not only fully on board with Victorian and 1920s bungalows, but they were already going after Mid-Century Modern and dragging the eggheads along reluctantly, as Richard Longstreth pointed out.
Probably the most dramatic fact of 40 years is that we are already trying to save buildings that were built during that period, some of which were decried at the time of construction, like the maligned and then beloved State of Illinois/Thompson Center in Chicago.
Diversity is perhaps the most important, and has been a leitmotif throughout my preservation career, from working for landmark designation of North Kenwood 1988-1993 to serving on no less than three diversity committees and task forces for the National Trust in the last 15 years. For the last ten years I have been leading panels and trying to find ways to bring more diversity to the National Register of Historic Places, efforts embraced by many that are starting to bear fruit. I am also very grateful to have been a part of the Coalition for the Woolworth Building here in San Antonio and today a part of the Alamo Museum Planning Civil Rights Exhibit Subcommittee planning that portion of the rehabilitated Woolworth Building. (See our video on the history here.)
Diversity is essential to the private sector for innovation and to the public sector for justice. It is essential to the heritage conservation field because our basic mission is not simply to save historic buildings, sites and places, but to save those places that will continue to have meaning to subsequent generations. After forty years in this fascinating field, I have seen many historic places “saved” more than once.
Since my first day I have understood that a key to heritage conservation is conveying the importance of a preservation ethic. Preservation is a process that a community uses to identify what elements of its past are essential to its future. Demographics have shifted significantly in 40 years, and the communities of today are measurably different than 1983.
Preservation is always a future oriented decision, and the diverse generations of the future are key. How do you insure that the next generation also believes in the importance of saving places? Listen to them and give them power.
While in Bogotá I saw a news article about the Smithsonian Institute returning looted artifacts to Benin in West Africa, part of a growing trend to repatriate historic arts and crafts to the regions they were crafted in. This was of great interest to my students at Ean University, who asked me point blank what I thought about the repatriation of historic artifacts in museums. I said repatriate them. In a world of digital reproduction, museums can easily go back to the plaster casts from whence they came. Location is a key aspect of authenticity.
This reminded me of James Cuno’s book of a little over a decade ago, perhaps the last piece defending the ideal of the encyclopedic museum by arguing that antiquities belong to everyone, not a particular contemporary nation state. Cuno left the Getty this year and now I see that the Getty is hosting a symposium on “The Multiple Reinventions of the Americas in Context,” a critical look at how the “New World” has been conceived and reconceived over the last 500 years. Turns out, I could see much of that reinvention right in Bogotá.
Bogotá has some wonderful historic museums, but what really struck me was their interpretation, which is state of the art. My first visit was to the Museo Nacional, in a former panopticon prison. They have undertaken a reimagining of the museum by abandoning traditional chronology for juxtaposition, putting pre-Columbian artifacts next to telephones under the theme of communication, for example. Objects come alive as you see them simultaneously from the perspective of the colonizer, the colonized, the curator and the curious.
Colombia is a vast and diverse country in both people and geography. Like the U.S. it has Atlantic and Pacific coasts, a wide range of natural and mineral resources, a variety of indigenous groups, a history of African enslavement and a surprisingly long commitment to democracy. All of these themes were explored in the museum, with some clever interpolations by contemporary artists.
There was an exhibit on the history of the building, described as a 19C panopticon prison, and while it was not a true circular panopticon, the suggestion of Foucault and French structuralism was reinforced by the tiny gold exhibit in a literal safe across the way, which had this unexpected text on the wall.
Whoa! I have not seen McLuhan quoted in a museum before, but it makes perfect sense. Where is the medium the message more than in a museum? You are even invited to put your own self and your own culture in the museum.
MUSA, the Archaeological museum, was another example of interpretative elán, sited in one of the oldest surviving houses in Bogotá, from 1738. The collection is primarily ceramics from the many indigenous cultures that inhabited the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts, the three ranges of Andes Mountains, the Amazon and various other regions.
Interpretive text asked us not to see these ceramics as the work of the Other but as human creations that contained foods and sounds. The text asked us further to empathize with each object, reimagining our relationship to our own foods and dolls and musical instruments. The text on the wall urged us yet further to imagine their uses for ourselves without the intervention of the archaeologist or curator. The text was not printed but projected, because the museum is not eternal but fugitive, an incomplete record of an incomplete conversation. The interpretation did not dictate but prodded us to think openly about what we take from the objects presented and how their makers may have experienced them.
The Colonial Museum has the largest task in a time of decolonization, and in many ways did it best. This one was busy, with a conference going on, a massive contemporary art display on the courtyard galleries, and school groups being led with laughter through the exhibitions. Again, there were deft insertions of contemporary art interpretations, but only a few, and their style deliberately played on historic forms and tropes. The best example took familiar 17C images defining racial categorizations resulting from the mixing of Europeans, Africans and Indigenous and then crafted modern ones playing on modern subcultures in a mirror of the antique style.
The opening exhibit sticks primarily to religious and art objects brought to the Americas from Europe as part of the conversion of the population to Catholicism, although almost immediately they give you the artist reimagining the retablo.
The arrangement produced an understanding of the massive effort it took to transport huge numbers of paintings and sculpture to reinforce European traditions and religion. The journey to Bogotá, administrative center of the complex Muisca people who likely numbered a million, took many months both on sea and land. That is a lot of work for a collection of religious items, many quite bulky. I suppose it was worth it to the Spanish crown if they ultimately succeeded in establishing control.
It often takes only a single contemporary image playing with the forms of the historic image to open them up. Here a couple, followed by an artistic interpretation that again plays with racial reversal to make a point and open an eye, not unlike the work of Kehinde Wiley.
They even linked the tradition of saints and martyrs to contemporary martyrs due to the various insurgent groups and narcotraficantes of the 20C. Again, juxtaposition of the old and new offered a view into parallel worlds of conflict, colony and conversion.
These museums were refreshing and interesting, because you looked at each piece longer and had a stronger sense of its purpose and intent than you would have 20 or 50 years ago when it was just another item that was supposed to be beautiful or persuasive. Contemporaneity and criticality opened up the items in new ways, exposing not simply the contradictions of colonialism, but the contradictions of cultural inheritance. You can return a piece from the museum, enacting social justice. Or you can recontextualize a piece, engendering understandings that will support the ongoing pursuit of that justice.
Disclaimer: The blog of Dr. Vincent L. Michael, Time Tells, is not an official Department of State site. The views expressed here are entirely those of Dr. Michael and do not represent the views of the U.S. Department of State or its partners.
Breitbart said politics is downstream of culture, which means our current political extremism is but a distillate of larger cultural forces. I would posit that while these include globalization, climate crises and inequality, they have been profoundly and quite recently shaped by digital communications. The crowd plodding along the street looking at their phones; the basement incel fulminating in extreme words and images because they are his only communication currency; the politician pushing the goalposts for a given issue further and further because the replication of memery mandates that only violent opinions will secure any attention at all.
And here I sit in the middle of heritage conservation as I have for nearly forty years, a rare combination of education, advocacy, urbanism, regulation and economics that sometimes appears to be the last multipartisan issue. Why? Because it is about culture, upstream of the horses that relieve themselves before it reaches the town hall. But what is culture? Something we associate with aesthetics, to be sure, in art and architecture and costume and song and food and drink. The finer things in life. These too, are kinds of communication, phrases and ideas that because they are standing or dancing physically in the real world do not require ultraviolence. They are real. They do not compete with an endless intergalactic webernet’s flow of rawer and rawer sewage.
The sewage is increasingly available to all, but so is heritage conservation. Every place has its stories, its poems and its puffy tacos and every place has its structures and sculptures and street signs. Climb out of the basement and walk down the street and discover heritage, because every bit of it is a node of empathy and a key to a social contract and communication.
In 1901 Frank Lloyd Wright gave his famous “The Art and Craft of the Machine” speech at Hull House in Chicago, turned it into pamphlet sold at his 1902 exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago and purchased by a teen named Barry Byrne, who read it over and over again. Here was the definition of art AND democracy. The clever title transposed two seemingly diametrically opposed cultural/political movements of the time – the Machine Age versus Arts and Crafts, the celebration of the human artifices of a pre-Industrial era. Byrne’s prodigious writings of the 1940s and indeed his buildings refer back again and again to the pamphlet.
To Wright, the Industrial Age meant liberation and democracy. Now all could enjoy the beauty of machine-sawed wood, the commodity of a clear view of nature, and the utility of affordable home and hearth. To Wright, architecture had been “the universal writing of humanity”, rendered moot by Gutenberg. He agreed with Hugo that the book killed the edifice, but instead of lamenting it like Ruskin he embraced it for freeing us from the drudgery of handcraft and allowing the infinite reproduction of beautiful forms. His European associates would likewise celebrate the Machine Age in their theory, and when time and finance permitted, designs.
Wright boiled it down. Art is artifice and all human creations are artificial. “The Machine is Intellect mastering the drudgery of earth that plastic art may live;” and its replication through industry allowed a broad cast of beauty that would “emancipate human expression.” It was the opposite of the mawkish medievalisms of Ruskin, reveling in ruin.
But a year later in 1903, Alois Riegl gave us the seminal heritage conservation text with his “Modern Cult of Monuments: Its Character and Origin.” I have always had an affinity for his proto-Heidegerrian pseudoscientific categorization of preservation motivations: “Age Value;” “Art Value;” “Use Value;” “Historical Value;” “Commemorative Value;” and even “Newness Value.” He talked of intentional and unintentional monuments. He thought “Age Value” the best because it could be apprehended and appreciated by all.
Wright and Riegl both celebrated nature and science and both were focused on the relation of people to their world and to communication. Wright saw the Machine as bringing a new communication to the broadest possible swath of humanity and Riegl saw the Age Value of the heritage site with similar vocabulary and stimulating that same broad swath. This was an era of world views, of seeking cultural essence. It was an era that revolutionized architecture in dramatic ways but also introduced heritage conservation and its manifold motivations.
These two texts of twelve decades gone may not have anticipated the megafolding multiplicity of our current antisocial media landscape, remaining as they did upstream, on the mountain of culture, where humans and nature intersect for real. I think they would have found the plastic artificiality of our intergalactic webernet as cause for a new essay, albeit one that still valued education, nature and science.
Aaronetta Pierce, a lion of civic life and civil rights in San Antonio, was named one of the Tri-Chairs of the Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee last week. Shortly thereafter we learned that Council Member Roberto Trevino had been replaced on the management committee for the Alamo by Council Member Rebecca Viagran, a descendent of Tejano Alamo defender Toribio Losoya. Dr. Carey Latimore was also appointed to the Citizens Advisory Committee following his detailed study of Civil Rights around Alamo Plaza, specifically the famed lunch counter integration of 1960 – the first peaceful and voluntary integration of lunch counters in the South during the Sit-In movement.
The Mayor made it clear that the buildings facing the Alamo chapel/shrine – the Crockett, Palace and Woolworth Buildings – are to be saved. This is huge news and a validation of the position taken by the Conservation Society in the fall of 2015. It is also huge for our Coalition for the Woolworth Building, formed in 2018 and including the aforementioned Aaronetta Pierce. The milestones of the Coalition: State Antiquities Landmark status in May, 2019; the release of a plan showing how to repurpose the buildings that same month; a prize-winning ofrenda honoring civil rights leader Mary Lilian Andrews in October 2019 and the listing of the Woolworth Building later that same month as one of only 3 U.S. buildings on the World Monuments Watch List 2020, have now come to fruition. A year ago we held a Donut Day at the Woolworth and then an all-day seminar on the role of Alamo Plaza in Bexar County’s Civil Rights history. We spent the pandemic year continuing to lobby, collecting video testimonials and crafting a series of short videos about the lunch counter integration that are now in production.
The Mayor is also revisiting a few more ill-conceived and unpopular elements of the 2018 plan, including lowering the plaza (which makes the archeologists CRAZY) and permanently closing the streets (which makes the businesspeople CRAZY). San Antonians have heaved a sigh of relief as the Alamo plan enters a new era that will remember the long arc of its history by preserving all of its layers and getting comfortable with the fact that it is in the middle of a city.
And soon we will reveal the story of a young black man who ate lunch at Woolworth’s on March 16, 1960.
“Conservation means all of the processes of looking after a place so as to retain its cultural significance.”
“Cultural significance is embodied in the place itself, its fabric, its setting, use, associations, meanings, records, related places and related objects. Places may have a range of values for different individuals or groups.”
This is from the document I consider the northstar of my field, the Burra Charter. While we call it historic preservation in the U.S., I have argued for a dozen years that it is in fact heritage conservation. It is not a set of rules or standards. It is a process.
The process whereby a community determines what elements of its past it wants to bring into its future. The community must determine what is significant, how significant it is, and how it should be conserved and treated in the future. Professionals can help the community do this, but they have to do it or it is worthless.
The quotations above from the Burra Charter illustrate that heritage conservation is a process, and that different types of resources follow different types of rules. The quotation also iterates a concept that we in the United States call integrity but elsewhere is authenticity.
That is because integrity tends to be a mechanistic and formalistic concept that reinforces the primacy of materiality. It doesn’t have to be so. Integrity’s seven aspects include feeling and association and I have been involved in the effort to redefine integrity in order to diversify heritage conservation and preserve the full range of our history.
I am currently Co-Chair of the Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice Working Group, part of a partnership between the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Preservation Partners Network. Our field is still clogged with the remnants of a history that empowered white males to the exclusion of others, and integrity aided and abetted that exclusion.
How do you define the integrity of a building that housed decades of history for a marginalized community? Shouldn’t it in fact illustrate the fact that it survived on the margins of the power structure and economic hegemony? Doesn’t the fact that it lost its cornice or replaced stone with brick in fact define its cultural significance?
Following years of work on this issue, I wrote a paper that became a book chapter published in 2018 that dove fairly deeply into the specific mechanics of integrity and diversity – the bottom line is that the preservation world has much to repair in its relation to the whole of history and the whole of the country. Recognizing the bias in the rules – and those who interpret them – is the first step.
Here are three very nicely designed highrises one after the next. They are the Gibbs Hotel (1909) in a Renaissance/Chicago Commercial style, the Classical 1937 Courthouse and Post Office, and the Deco Gothic verticality of the Emily Morgan hotel (1926). This is in the heart of town just north of the Alamo.
In fact, these three buildings cover the north wall of the fabled mission and fortress. The famous 1836 battle began when Santa Anna successfully stormed the north wall, breaking in roughly between the Courthouse and the Emily Morgan. Commander Lt. Wm. Travis fell but a minute and a half into the battle, also on the north wall, to the left of where the streetlights are in the lower center of the photo.
The chapel, which everyone knows as the Alamo, was the first building preserved by the public west of the Mississippi, in 1883, less than fifty years after the battle. Already this had become the center of town and the large commercial Crockett Block was in place facing the chapel.
The Conservation Society began advocating for the re-use of the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings when the state purchased them nearly five years ago for a new Alamo Museum. This was part of the larger reimagining of the Alamo that began in 2014. Sixteen months ago we presented a concept showing how the buildings could be added onto to make the new museum.
All this is preface to a curious push right now by the Save the Alamo Foundation to garner public support for their Alamo Plan. The most curious aspect of this push is that they don’t have a final design for the plaza. Nor even a preliminary design for the museum. How do you sell that?
Well, they are selling the idea that they will reclaim the footprint of the battlefield/mission walls. A portion of where the west wall was is 10 feet under the Crockett and Woolworth buildings. WHERE IT WAS – these buildings have 15 foot basements so there is NO remnant of the wall.
But let’s go back to the north wall, where all the action happened. Are they planning to take down the Gibbs Hotel and the Courthouse? No.
So what are they selling? An invisible museum? It seems they are selling the idea that the famed 1836 battle will – by itself – attract all sorts of tourists. Calmer heads, like CM Roberto Trevino, are arguing that the 110 years of history before the battle need to be interpreted as well. After all, it is the mission era that made the Alamo part of a World Heritage Site.
The Alamo spent 80 years as a mission, 50 as a fort, and 170 as the commercial heart of a growing city.
The most curious thing of all about the Alamo Plan is not the absence of a design, nor the decision to expose some wall sites rather than others, but the fact that it is driven by an interpretive message that appears to be scripted by a 10-year old boy in 1950.* I visited as a 15-year old and thoroughly enjoyed the tales of heroism and sacrifice. But that is a small demographic.
The 1836 battle is just the starting point for a much richer tale with stories relevant to all peoples and all times. Why don’t they sell that? The more you include, the more money you make – what am I missing here?
*Thanks to Evan Thompson for this quip.
AUGUST 25 UPDATE:
Well, they have a drawing now! The drawing shows the plaza reconstructed as a reenactment of the 1836 battle, with a second story on the Long Barracks, a rebuilt southwest rampart, and lots of cannon and palisades. The drawing, from their Facebook page and in the news, is rendered from a position above the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings, so no news on the museum.
While still clearly aimed at that 10-year-old, it is the first new illustration of the plan in two years, so that is something. The drawing shows reconstruction of the second story of the Long Barracks as well as an earthen rampart at the southwest corner with cannon. I have dealt with the folly of reconstruction in the digital age previously. The drawing also shows lots of living history reenactors, making the whole thing a curiously large investment in a moribund industry.
In a month the Texas Historical Commission will make a decision about moving the Cenotaph, which is a publicly funded portion of the project. No news yet on the museum or other privately funded projects.
FUN FACT: The reason Clara Driscoll insisted on taking down the second story of the Long Barracks in 1913 was that it dominated the plaza and overshadowed the shrine – the same argument for moving the Cenotaph today! So they move the Cenotaph and then overwhelm the Chapel with a reconstructed second story of the Long Barracks???
FUN FACT: Do you know that in 1997 when it closed, the proposal was to turn the Woolworth Building into an aviation museum? True!